The Returned and Services League of Australia (often abbreviated to RSL) is a support organisation for men and women who have served or are serving in the Australian Defence Force (ADF).
It was formed as the Returned Sailors and Soldiers Imperial League of Australia in 1916, became the Returned Sailors' Soldiers' and Airmens Imperial League of Australia in 1940, and became the Returned Services League of Australia in 1965. The change to its current name was made in 1990 to reflect the organisation's concern for current as well as former servicemen and servicewomen.
To ensure that programs are in place for the well-being, care, compensation and commemoration of serving and ex-service Defence Force members and their dependants; and promote Government and community awareness of the need for a secure, stable and progressive Australia.
Since its formation, the organisation has been politically influential and at times highly controversial. As well as arguing for veterans' benefits, it has entered other areas of political debate. It was politically conservative, Anglophilic, and monarchist - RSL halls are one of the few places in Australia where portraits of Queen Elizabeth II are still habitually hung, and in several widely publicised cases members expressing republican views were expelled.
Many veterans from the Vietnam War found the RSL, dominated by the ranks of World War II veterans, an unwelcoming, alien environment, and chose not to participate, but have over the past 20 years become actively involved. This may have been reflective of the changing status of Vietnam veterans in the 1970s and 80s. (See also Social attitudes and treatment of Vietnam veterans)
Nevertheless the focus of the RSL is above all on the welfare of Australian men and women serving in the armed forces. It has advocated for veterans entitlements, the protection of former battlefields and the rights of serving soldiers, sailors and airmen. The RSL also ensures that those that have served the country are commemorated for their service by providing funeral information to those that have served with the deceased and handing out individual Red poppy flowers at the funeral to ensure that the deceased service to their country is acknowledged (see In Flanders Fields). In 2003 Peter Phillips, the National President, endorsed a statement criticising the decision of the Howard government to send forces to Iraq without a mandate from a United Nations Security Council resolution.
RSL clubs usually have bar and dining facilities for their members and guests, and sometimes have extensive gaming areas. RSLs also organise Anzac Day and Remembrance Day commemorations. Some are tied to, or are connected to, local sports clubs, in both physical sports such as netball, cricket, rugby league, Australian rules football and soccer, as well as games which are popular with retirees, such as snooker, lawn bowls and darts. Many also have clubs for hobbies such as fishing and knitting.
Many club branches offer live music at least on one evening per week, and sometimes more often. RSL clubs are among of the most prominent employers of live performers.
In some states, poker machines are a prominent feature of RSL clubs. Bigger clubs can feature several hundreds of them. They are a main source of revenue. The club industry claims that this revenue is also a major contributor to the financing of many community orientated projects. More critical voices see them as part of an ever increasing social gambling problem. Many of the clubs in Sydney's Southwest and Western Suburbs have grown rapidly over the past 10-15 years primarily due to gaming revenue. While club managers have argued gaming revenues support community activities and services, critics argue the services are often limited or underfunded. Keno is another gambling option provided by basically all club branches. Many clubs feature also novelty type of gambling options, such as operator free electronic roulette machines. A traditional mainstay with most branches remains bingo, attracting generally a more mature audience. Many RSLs are repositioning themselves to attract a younger crowd in an effort to maintain relevance and profitability.
The National Executive consists of: National President; Deputy National President; state Presidents for New South Wales, Victoria, Australian Capital Territory, Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania, and Western Australia; and the National Secretary, Treasurer, and Solicitor. The National Secretary has functional control of the National Headquarters in Canberra.
Each state has a similar hierarchical structure that brings together the interests of the local RSL clubs. Each club has a local hierarchy of officials.